Firstly, sorry this blog is a bit late as it is now early May. The last few weeks have been less than Spring-like with cold snaps, the odd sleet shower and windy. At least we have had some welcome rain for the garden in the last couple of days.
I thought that in this blog I would provide some information about pearls. This natural resource adds a bit of elegance to any piece of jewellery and is the birthstone of June. However, there is a superstition that pearls should not be given as a present or worn on a wedding day because the wearer will have misfortune along with tears and unhappiness. Like all superstitions the origin of this particular one is a little vague and you either do or don’t believe in it but in order to get around “the curse”, the recipient should hand over a penny to the giver so as to be seen to purchase the pearls.
The oldest pearl was found in Marayah in the United Arab Emirates, but some have also been found in Baja Mexico dating back around 8500 years, so they’ve existed for a very, very long time. Natural pearls were in fact one of the first gems to be worn by humans. There are three types of pearl: natural, cultured and synthetic.
Natural Pearls are created in host oysters of the Pinctada variety (not the type that you can eat by the way!) These molluscs can be found in both fresh and salt water. The pearl starts off as what is called a concretion inside a pearl sac in the oyster and is composed of calcium carbonate, organic matter and water. This to the mollusc can seem like having a stone in your shoe but rather than try and get rid of it, the oyster coats the annoyance in a substance called nacre which then continues to grow into a pearl. Not all pearls are nacreous and those that aren’t are very rare indeed. Pearls are mainly found in the waters around the United Arab Emirates but also in Australian waters. A necklace of natural pearls takes years to make because the shape, lustre and size has to be equally matched in every pearl and the reason why these necklaces command such very high prices. These gems are weighed in grains with four grains to a carat and ideally the shape should be round. But as with natural gems, pearls tend to be imperfect on the whole. Odd, shaped pearls are known as Baroque and can be discovered in freshwater oysters farmed in rivers and lakes. Japan was the first country to develop freshwater pearls in the 1930s in Lake Biwa, but the waters of the lake become too polluted to continue production. Flawless pearls are extremely rare, and it only takes three flaws (such a chipping, cracking and pitting) to reduce the pearl’s value by up to 50% depending on the severity of the flaw. Lustre is what gives a pearl its beauty and value and those found in the Arabian Gulf tend to be creamy white whereas Australian ones lean towards silver white or yellow.
Cultured Pearls have been around since the early part of the 20th century when experimentation by a Japanese pedlar over many years resulted in the acceleration of pearl production and commercial success in 1916. It was at this time that cultured pearls became a threat to the natural ones. Having said that, the Chinese actually started inserting objects into freshwater mussels in the 13th century, so the process isn’t exactly new. Today, around 90% of pearls are of the cultured type. Cultured pearls are created by placing a bead of mother of pearl inside the shell of a live oyster in a lab and returning the mollusc to the oyster beds to grow. The length of time they are left will eventually determine the quality of the pearl.
Synthetic Pearls are made by coating a glass bead with a solution of fish scales and bismuth oxychloride to give the lustre but unfortunately the rest of the process seems to be a closely guarded secret and so little is known about what happens next. It is thought that the pearls seen on so many of Queen Elizabeth I dresses were in fact synthetic. Some of the best synthetic pearls come from Majorca known as the Majorica Pearls and were introduced in 1953. It is very difficult to distinguish synthetic pearls with cultured or natural but there is a test that is carried out called the Tooth Test! Yep, rub a pearl gently against one of your front teeth and if it’s a cultured or natural variety is will feel rough whereas synthetic ones will feel smooth and polished.
There it is then, a potted history and explanation of how pearls are created. Pearls should be worn as it is the contact with skin that keeps the lustre so prized in these gems. They need to be treated with great care as they can chip, or crack easily so store them in something soft when not being worn.
So, whether you believe superstitions or not, pearls are beautiful gems and rare ones highly prized. I personally don’t wear them not because I believe in any superstition (!) but they aren’t my favourites. I much prefer diamonds and rubies.
Well, that’s it for this blog. I hope you’ve found the subject interesting.
Until next time keep safe and well
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